“. . . we must emphasize that the chief reality of the atonement is that it was a penal substitution. In penal substitution, the penalty that is due to us for our transgression is paid by a substitute, namely, Jesus Christ.”Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/penal-substitution
Some will understand the play on words in the title, but for those who don’t, allow me to explain. We need to talk about the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a public service announcement about PSA.
Each word in this doctrine is crucial to our understanding of the gospel itself. So, let’s go through each word.
The word penal means “related to punishment for offenses.” As it relates to Scripture, penal refers to the punishment we should receive for our offenses—our sins against God. The Bible is very clear that, in fact, we are under punishment, that is, the wrath of God (Eph. 2:3). That is what we deserved for our sin. We put ourselves there.
Many people, even professing Christians, are repulsed by the idea that we are under God’s wrath, but that just reveals a distrust in Scripture because the Bible is very clear on it. God’s wrath was over us—but our substitute took it on himself.
Jesus Christ is our substitute. He died for our sins, in our place (2 Cor. 5:21). He died the death we deserved. If Christ is not our substitute, the gospel falls apart, because we needed somebody—God, no less—to live a perfect life on our behalf and die on our behalf. Even more, Christ needed to bear the full brunt of God’s wrath—and that’s exactly what he did. On our behalf.
“Jesus had no sin of his own,” Jarvis Williams said in a podcast for Desiring God. “It was not his own penalty that he bore, but he was a substitute for others, for those who would be joined to him by faith.”
Any person who reaches out to God in faith, believing in what Christ did, will be the beneficiary of Christ’s substitutionary work. No exceptions. Once that happens, Christ’s life becomes their life; his death becomes their death. And that is the beauty of substitution.
Without the atonement, there is no gospel. There is no salvation, no redemption, no rescue. Our sins had to be atoned for, and it happens in only one of two ways. Either we place our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, or we don’t and therefore pay for our sins in hell for eternity.
We must bank our faith on the atonement of Christ! It is the central facet of Christianity. This is not a doctrine we compromise—this is a hill we die on. No atonement means no salvation.
Christian, do not be ashamed of penal substitutionary atonement, for it is the ground of our salvation! There will be people—professing Christians, no less—who will deny that Jesus was our substitute and that our sin wasn’t that big of a deal. Give them no ear. Let us turn our gaze to God in gratitude of saving us.